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Joeonna Bellorado-Samuels / Interview Nectar Knuckles

In something we Africans got issue 7
January 2019

« Advocacy also means making sure that their ( the artists ) work is in front of museums and trying to place their work and not just selling to sell, but really thinking about placement and protecting an artist and where they will be 20 years from now. Making sure they’re in good collections, helping younger collectors understand what it means to be a good collector and the kind of responsibility and stewardship that comes with that. »

– Joeonna Bellorado-Samuels

Joeonna Bellorado-Samuels

Nectar Knuckles: How did you come into wanting to become a director at a gallery?

Joeonna Bellorado-Samuels: It’s a very long and meandering story. But I think ultimately, it’s rooted in wanting to help support artists in their careers. My father is an artist and watching his experience working with galleries and then not working with galleries and really feeling like the gallery system and the support of the galleries is really integral to long term careers and sustainability to practice and so really being interested in doing that kind of work.
Although I didn’t start off that way I thought I was going to be working in policy. I was really interested in policy and went into that for a little bit. That’s a long story, but I decided after a few years that that was not what I wanted to spend forever doing.

What kind of policy were you doing? I worked for a lobbyist and we specialized in health care and education. We represented American Indian Nations in the Pacific Northwest from Oakland.  We also worked with what’s called the Opposite Tribal Self Governance which is a coalition of a few hundred tribes to help advocate and decide how to use federal dollars in the way that is most beneficial to the tribal nation and in a way having more autonomy over those kinds of choices. 

But anyway so I left that and I was like okay, either I go to law school or I just course correct. So I course corrected and came and went to art school. I think that was just my most immediate ‘I don’t know exactly what I want to do, but I know I loved it.’ So I’ll go with that and figure it out.

But I was always kind of working, interning at galleries. I interned at Studio Museum in curatorial with what I think is the dream team of all time. I was there with Thelma, Christine Kim, who left the first week after I was there, but she was the first person I kind of did something with for her show Flow that she was working on. Naomi Beckwith and Lauren Haynes and Thomas Lax. 

That was a prime time. I was very, very lucky. And they, to this day, are some of the most brilliant people I’ve ever worked with. And I really loved working on a show with a lot of different artists. And, you know, I was making work, and I wasn’t trash, but I also think that there are so many artists in the world. I don’t think anyone should be an artist, professionally unless they really can’t do anything else. I don’t mean unable to do anything else.

What kind of work were you making? Photo-based work. Anyway, yeah, not that they can’t do anything else. But like, really, really, really, that’s all that they want to do. It’s such a hard life that I think you really have to monitor yourself and a lot of things in your life and be ready for that. I was not. I also just didn’t want to spend my life dealing with just self-reflective, kind of just thinking about me and my ideas. And artists have to do that and that’s great. I was not that into that. I want to talk about that person’s ideas, I’m really interested in what that person’s doing. And I really loved being at the Museum, but when the internship finished and I needed a job, I decided that I wanted to be on the private side because I also really loved the long term representation and relationship. As opposed to being around an exhibition happening. Working with an artist for the duration of their career is the best thing ever. So I went over I started as an assistant to one of the owners who since passed away, Claude Simard, and he was amazing. He also had previously had a practice of his own, was amazing with artists, and we became really close and I stayed at Jack Shainman. I loved the program when I got there, it was really good timing, and I’ve been there ever since.

Beyond working with artists long term, what other aspects of being a director do you really like? And what are aspects of it that you feel you don’t love? Yeah, kind of the idea of what it is. The best part is working with artists and in so many different capacities, some more closely than others, and really thinking about the shape of what an artist’s career looks like, and really advocating for what they want, but also helping them navigate what that is, too. I mean, sales are not in and of themselves particularly interesting. I like the idea that I am helping artists make a living and survive, so for that it’s great. I’m not particularly interested in the art market as an economic experiment, you know. Every job has the bureaucratic stuff and my least favorite thing I have to say is reminding people to pay their invoices. I feel like a bank agency and it’s triggering and I hate it. 

In thinking about advocacy, what does that look for you and what about it manifests specifically in the galleries sphere? Well, we have these artists on our roster and we help them form context for their work and become facilitators in this work being in the world and how people talk about it. We’re kind of first line and so we draft a lot of that communication about what the work is, we talk to people about the work, how people understand the work and I think that that element is super important. Especially within the context of a particular dominant art historical cannon that sometimes struggles with ways in which ideas and people are discussed and contextualized. So that was a real around way to say that I think particularly artists of color, I like making sure that their ideas are communicated in line with what they’re doing and not just made comfortable for an audience. 

Advocacy also means making sure that their work is in front of museums and trying to place their work and not just selling to sell, but really thinking about placement and protecting an artist and where they will be 20 years from now. Making sure they’re in good collections, helping younger collectors understand what it means to be a good collector and the kind of responsibility and stewardship that comes with that. Especially when a personal interest would be helping widen the doors in terms of access in who is collecting and helping people. It can be definitely an intimidating space in which people feel like they don’t know what questions to ask, who to ask, if they can even ask. I think that that’s an important thing to us, really having relationships with collectors and helping them grow. Also I’ve learned a tremendous amount from collectors. 

But yeah, figuring out where to place their work, helping make sure that their work is shown within contexts that are…good. There’s a better word for that, but. Making sure that other people communicate with curators for shows because do we really need to have another black artist show with nothing else as the theme? Is nothing else being discussed? We’re really thinking about that. Because there’s so many different stages and different lanes and different places that artists are. And some artists need to, want to, show less. It’s not just about trying to get a million things going, but also really thinking about how to narrow that and figure out the best focused way to present their work or allow their work to be presented.

Do you ever think about how they exist in scholarship and text? An artist having not only their own body of work, but a body of criticism around their work is really important. And going back and thinking about fading art history, it’s super, super important and that also means finding writers and sharing them with the right people. For working on publications, so many people and press have been talking about a particular artist with a really narrow lense and we want to make sure to kind of rejigger that to thinking about ideas that the artist is really trying to communicate. That might be pairing them with the writer who’s thinking about some of those same things, or who really sees that in the work and is dedicated to the scholarship.

Joeonna Bellorado-Samuels

At Shainman you work as a director, because I’m not sure if that if you have artist liaisons there, or if the role of director also encompasses that. But then at We Buy Gold I feel like you serve as the curator? Question mark. At Shainman we actually last year hired a Director of Artist Relations who is purely an artist liaison, so that’s the first time as a director role is really focused on that and sales. So in that within the roster I have artists that I’m the liaison for and there may be some overlap with the liaison role where I’m more overall and sales and she comes in and helps facilitate decisions and group shows, going in the studio, and things like that. With We Buy Gold, well I don’t consider myself a curator. I’m not going to correct someone if they call me a curator, but I would never call myself a curator.

Why is that? I blame working at Studio Museum surrounded by those people. They’re just you know, curators have dedicated themselves academically and time. It’s a practice in and of itself and I take it really seriously and I don’t think that because you organize something means that you are a curator. I think there are ways to thinking about curatorial philosophy, curatorial projects, and I respect people who have taken that path. I feel like I do a lot of things and sure, so I would use curator as a verb, like I do curatorial things, but I will not say that I’m a curator. I’m not an art historian, I don’t have a PhD, not that you need one. You know, I do think I’m a little old school, I’m right on the cusp of being old enough to be a little traditional in the way that I think about this. But also I’m interested in disruption and I think that there should be more space for people who have alternative ways of providing a place.

At We Buy Gold, I am We Buy Gold. That means I’m painting the walls, I’m moving things around. That means gallery sitter, you know, janitor, exhibition organizer, dealing with the artists, so I mean, I love that about it. It’s all of the things that are necessary in making things happen. I mean, that’s not to say that I don’t think about those exhibitions seriously, or that they’re just thrown together like ‘oh I like these three, four people, let’s do a show.’ I am really thinking about curatorial ideas of what it means for these people to be showing together, and what the work says, what I’m trying to say is, overall the idea being presented as innovation, all of those things are definitely with purpose and intention. It’s just I’m going to avoid that word. It’s like a little protest (…) Find the full text of the interview in something we Africans got issue#7.

In something we Africans got issue 7
Nectar Knuckles
January 2019